When it comes to pornography, vulgar humanities are happy to talk turkey

November 12, 2009

When Alan McKee submitted a paper on pornography to a leading social science journal, he did not attempt to spare readers' blushes.

But the language he used did more than raise eyebrows: it earned him a ticking-off from the academic referees who reviewed the paper.

"Certain language used in this study is unnecessarily vulgar and unscholarly ... eg 'wanking' instead of masturbating ... 'tit rubbing' instead of breast rubbing or fondling ... 'turkey slapping' and 'titwanking'," he was told.

The paper was published after he rewrote it and removed the "rude" words.

But the incident got him thinking about the difference between the humanities, which he said adopted a laissez-faire approach to rude language, and the more restrictive social sciences.

This grew into another paper in which Professor McKee, an expert on film and television at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, says he does not mind being seen as "vulgar", but that he does not believe that this renders him or his work "unscholarly".

In "Social scientists don't say 'titwank'?", Professor McKee writes: "Why does a social scientist have to say 'stimulation of the penis with the breasts' rather than 'titwank'? It is clearly not a matter of imprecision - there's no suggestion that 'titwank' describes the act any less precisely. And it can't simply be a matter of elegance - the single word and two syllables of 'titwank' is more euphonious than the staccato polysyllabism needed to describe the action in less 'vulgar' language."

Using vulgar language is not a problem in the humanities, he claims - particularly in queer theory, an area in which he has researched and published.

"There are many 'fucks' in queer theory," he observes. By contrast, the language of social science "is not the language of the 'vulgar' common people, but that of the middle classes, and one that creates a distance from the object of study".

The paper, published in the journal Sexualities, goes on to explore other comments made by referees in the social sciences about his academic articles.

One of his previous papers, which suggested that researchers interpret evidence differently depending on their personal beliefs, was rejected by one journal - although published by another - after a referee objected to the assertion that there was an ideological dimension to the tradition of pornography research.

While the claim would have been uncontroversial in the humanities, in the social sciences it was seen as "a charge of malpractice", he says.

In conclusion, he argues that both disciplines could learn from each other. The humanities, he suggests, would benefit from exploring empirical approaches instead of "endlessly theorising", while social science scholars could pursue new ideas rather than repeating experiments that ask the same questions.

"There are many possibilities. I can work within the humanities and use quantitative and statistical methods for gathering data. And so I wonder - would it be possible to be a social scientist and say 'titwank'?" he asks.


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